The author, Flannery O'Connor, said, "All I can say about my love of God is, Lord help me in my lack of it." O'Connor's characters often betray their true nature from behind a mask of good-hearted religiousity. This usually happens when the delusion they've projected onto the world is upset by personal crisis, usually by great hurt or harm they do to themselves or others inflict upon them. O'Connor believed that the "southern charm" so often praised by outsiders was nothing more than a cover for bigotry, pettiness, and unbelief. It motivated O'Connor to write: "I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted."
In a similar way, Martin Luther grappled with what he'd been taught as a young monk about loving God versus what he discovered in Scripture during his earliest psalms and Romans lectures. And by the end of his Romans lectures Luther became convinced that, contrary to what he'd been taught, human beings are only capable of loving themselves. Even our profession of love for God is a confession of self-love, of loving a god formed in our own image. That's why, Luther said, self-love was "the sum of all vices."
That means the underlying motive for us, for loving God, isn't a desire to enter into God's grace but our urgency to put ourselves first, last, and always. Luther said it was "plainly insane" what he'd been taught, that a man had the ability to love God above all things and with the help of grace, obey God's commands. He called his teachers and those who believed such things "fools" and "pig theologians." This teaching shocked Luther's students in the 1500s similar to the way O'Connor's readers were stunned to read a devout Catholic claim her love for God was nothing to brag about. What Luther and O'Connor understood is that every Christian is caught between two times. A Christian is a new man in Christ through faith, but also an old Adam in the flesh.
"The term 'old Adam' describes what sort of person is born of Adam," Luther writes, and "the term 'old Adam' is used not only because he performs the works of the flesh but more especially when he acts righteously and practices wisdom and exercises himself in all spiritual works, even to the point of loving and worshipping God himself." Because the old Adam always hangs round our necks, Luther taught, human beings not only "enjoy the gifts of God," but also, "seek to use God."
Just at that point when he believes he's most humble, most spiritual, most in harmony with God's grace, old Adam, because he is "in the flesh," seeks to use God to his advantage. On the other hand, when he meets those who confess their inability to love God apart from God's work in and through them, it's "pure idiot mystery," according to O'Connor, because our old Adam is Christ-haunted instead of Christ-centered.
Old Adam has a distorted image of Christ. For him, Jesus is an expression of God's love for humanity, like a big electric blanket laid over a shivering child. But, God's love is, in fact, Jesus crucified.
God's love is self-sacrificing, self-giving love. It's Calvary love. Nothing of ourselves about it. God doesn't want a whole bunch of little Jesus'. He's got One Savior, One Love, and that's enough. What God wants are a whole bunch of men and women who repent and turn to Him for Faith, Hope, and yes, Love. From His love for us, we're freed to love each other as one whom God has created, for whom God shed His blood and died. And when our love for others turns heartless, brutal, and hopeless, and we're haunted by it, we're free in Christ to pray, "God, if it be your will, help my lack of love." And in Christ, God's answer us always, "Yes, it is My will."
There all kinds of love, all kinds of ways religious types claim to love God, but the underlying truth of them all is that they're self-seeking kinds of love. Nothing inside us can help us love God more. Likewise, flying up into the heavens, climbing down into a hole, going forwards or backwards, won't advance us one inch closer to loving God as he commands us to love him, let alone loving each other as we love ourselves. Until we become blind and deaf to our need to prove how loving we can be to God and each other, God's Calvary Love for old Adam will appear grotesque and repellent to us.
Jesus crucified, suffering Himself to be rejected, is God's love for us. That same love possesses us when Christ's Spirit overshadows us, and in and through us He produces the fruits of that Calvary Love: patience and kindness. Love that doesn't envy or boast. He's not arrogant or rude. He doesn't insist on His own way, and isn't irritable or resentful. He doesn't rejoice in wrong-doing. Instead, Love rejoices in the Truth. Love carries all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. In other words, Love isn't a thing, the way we think of love. Instead, Love is Jesus.
Only Jesus' love given to us as free gift can change our selfish hearts. Only His Spirit can work in and through us to produce selfless love; love that doesn't keep score, love that suffers itself to be rejected. The kind of Love that works in us in such a way that we confess, ""All I can say about my love of God is, Lord help me in my lack of it."
Donavon Riley is a Lutheran pastor, conference speaker, author, Online Content Director for Higher Things, a contributing writer at 1517 Legacy Project, Christ Hold Fast, and LOGIA. Pastor Riley co-hosts the podcast: 'The Higher Things Simul Cast'. He is pastor of Saint John Lutheran Church in Webster, MN. A graduate of Concordia Universities in St. Paul, Minnesota and Portland, Oregon, Pastor Riley received his seminary and post-graduate education at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He colloquized into the LC-MS from the ELCA in 2008. He is married to Annie, and is the father of four children: Owen, Alma, Hoshea, and Hallel.